‘This alert is her cry’: New system would help locate missing Indigenous women | Indigenous peoples

Four years ago, Debra Lekanoff was busy traveling across the country in her role as director of government affairs for the Swinomish tribe when her worried daughter came to see her.

The 14-year-old had just learned some of the disturbing details of the missing and murdered Indigenous women crisis and feared that her mother, who is from Alaska and tends to travel alone, might one day not be able to return home. she.

Lekanoff said she remembered her daughter asking her, “Isn’t there a way to let everyone know when you’re being robbed?”

Today, as a Democratic representative from Washington state and the only Native American member of the state legislature, Lekanoff strives to do just that. Earlier this month, she helped introduce legislation that would implement an alert system specifically for missing Indigenous people.

If adopted, the system would be a first in the United States. Not only is it expected to help locate the individual and improve communication between law enforcement agencies and local jurisdictions, but also to raise awareness of the missing Indigenous peoples crisis. , especially women and girls.

According to a 2019 report from the Urban Indian Health Institute, a division of the Seattle Indian Health Board, Native American and Alaska Native women in Washington are disappearing at a rate more than four times higher than that of white residents in the state. . In a 2018 report, the institute found that of the 29 states studied, Washington had the second highest number of cases of missing and murdered Native American and Alaska Native women and girls.

Lekanoff, who is Tlingit and Aleut, said the system will convey to Washingtonians “that this is not just an Indian problem, it’s really a crisis that all Washingtonians need to take responsibility for.” We want to hear her scream as she is torn from her family. And this warning system is its cry.

The proposed alert system would work similarly to “silver alerts,” which are used in Washington and dozens of other states across the country to help locate vulnerable people who go missing.

The idea is that when an Indigenous person is reported missing, law enforcement could activate the alert, which would result in details of the person being broadcast via highway warning radio messages, signs and press releases for the media.

“The longer it is in the dark corners of our state, the more we do not speak [it] and we don’t share information, the longer this crisis is going to continue,” said Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who worked with Lekanoff on the legislation. “I think an important step, one of many, but an important step in dealing with the crisis, is to bring it to light.”

Some tribal leaders across the state have also expressed support for the legislation. But given the many years of this crisis, there have also been questions about why such a system was not in place long ago.

A march to commemorate a National Day of Mourning in downtown Plymouth, Massachusetts. Photography: Keiko Hiromi/AFLO/Rex/Shutterstock

“It’s something that could have been embraced very quickly early on when we learned about the seriousness of this issue,” said Puyallup tribal councilor Anna Bean. “It’s something we could have put in place, like a long time ago.”

But, she added: ‘It’s being put on the table now, and something is being done. And I’m just so grateful for that.

Bean, who is also a member of Washington State’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Persons Task Force, described the Puyallup Tribe, whose reservation is along the U.S. Interstate 5 corridor, as being virtually a “hotbed” for trafficking and other types of crime. which lead to disappearances. She said this type of alert system could make a big difference in these cases, when the quick and accurate dissemination of information about a disappearance is vital.

Just a few years ago, Andy Joseph Jr, who chairs the Colville Business Council, the governing body of the Confederate Tribes on the Colville Reservation, said his own family had found themselves in the middle of one of these devastating situations when her daughter-in-law’s boyfriend took away their young children. The man was caught in part through community posts on Facebook. But Joseph said he believed the man could have been found even faster if an alert system like the one proposed had been in place.

“I think it would make our people feel a lot safer and I also think the perpetrators could think a bit more before trying to do something like this because they probably know they’ve been pinned or tagged,” he said. .

SSome tribal officials have recommended that the alert include things like a photograph of the missing person and that the system be automated, rather than law enforcement activating the alerts, so no one is missed. Officials also suggested improving data collection on the wider crisis, to better understand the problem and the impact of such an alert system.

Lekanoff said the finer details of the system would be worked out in consultation with the 29 federally recognized tribes in Washington.

She said the proposal received bipartisan support from lawmakers and, with the legislative session kicking off last week, she hopes it will pass.

Lekanoff spoke of the red handprint on the mouth, which has become a symbol of the missing and murdered Indigenous movement.

She said: “The alert system removes this hand. It unleashes the cries of these women who are robbed or murdered from their families, their children, their communities. »

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